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Artist Overcomes Life’s Obstacles To Gain Worldwide Acclaim

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UPDATED: Wednesday June 26, 2013 8:01 PM

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, "There are no second acts in American lives."  

But he never met central Ohio artist Alfred Tibor.

The second act of Alfred Tibor's life brought him a new career, worldwide acclaim, and soon, a local park named in his honor.  

Next month, the City of Upper Arlington plans to start a fundraising effort to install his $500,000 gift that could draw art lovers from around the world.

Parkway Park is about to get a new look and a new name.  

The new look comes from nine life-size sculptures that Tibor has given the city.

Models for some are on display at Argo and Lehne Jewelers on Tremont Road.

Lynette Santoro-Au, the arts manager for the city, was stunned by the gift.

"It's the biggest thing that Upper Arlington has had come along in some time," she said.  "You cannot help but be moved by them. They're so intuitive to human emotion and us as humans, humanity in general."

The park, on South Parkway Drive, will be renamed Tibor Park, for the artist whose second act was nothing like his first.

"When I was 6-years-old, my dream was to be a sculptor," Tibor said.

The artist, a slight man with a black beret perched atop his white hair at a jaunty angle, spoke to 10TV News in the basement studio of his east side home.  

The studio gleams with his works.  

He's lived a third of his life in Columbus but was born in Hungary 93 years ago.  

Then, his name was Alfred Goldstein.  He grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust, and as a Jew, knew he was barred from college.

"I realized at that time, as a 6-year-old little boy, ‘If I am not getting education, how I am going to be a sculptor?’" he said.

To sculpt people, he'd need to understand the structure of the human body. He borrowed an anatomy textbook.

"I learned it from an old doctor," he said.

The self-taught artist also became a self-taught gymnast, who qualified for the Hungarian Olympic team.  

Tibor was denied his chance to compete in the infamous 1936 Olympics in Berlin, also known as "the Nazi Olympics,” the one in which an African-American named Jesse Owens ran over Hitler's idea of an Aryan master race.

Though a coach selected him, officials vetoed his participation.

"I didn't, wasn't called qualified because of my religion. So they throw me out."

While his brother Andrew fled to France to study art, the oldest brother, Tibor, studied medicine in Italy. Alfred, the youngest of three, was drafted into the Hungarian army.

"Next day, it became a forced labor battalion," he said.

When the Russians invaded, he and his battalion were captured and sent to a gulag in Siberia.

"From 273 people, two of us survived."

But all that time, when others saw barbed wire, Alfred Tibor saw something else.

"I was the crazy artist because I was looking at the beautiful sky," he recalled.

That is the essence of Alfred Tibor -- an optimist, a believer in humanity.

Santoro-Au marveled at his resiliency.

"The fact the he has experienced man's inhumanity to man at such a base level but can still find such joy and such hope for the future is just amazing to me," she said.

Alfred lost his parents and 82 other family members in Auschwitz.  

His brother, Tibor, died, too, so Alfred and Andrew changed their last name to Tibor, in his memory.  After the war, Alfred married. Then in 1956 during the Hungarian Revolution, with two small children, he and his wife escaped to America.  

As they steamed into New York Harbor, he held his infant daughter in his arms.

"I spotted the Statue of Liberty.  And I got something which I never had had before -- freedom," he explained.

Tibor became a commercial artist in Miami, Fla., and drew newspaper ads of furniture, in a time when photographs were unusual in newspaper advertising.  

He also drew architects' renderings of proposed buildings.  He went to school to learn English and to study for his citizenship test. Then at age 57, he started his second act.

Columbus businessman Jerome Schottenstein hired him, brought him to Columbus, and one day, invited him to worship at Agudas Achim Synagogue. There, someone announced that they wanted a memorial of the Holocaust. Tibor stepped up.

"You don't have to look for an artist." he announced.  

He crafted a miniature in clay, and won the commission.

Schottenstein gave Tibor room in a warehouse to work.  

And in that makeshift space, Tibor shaped his first sculpture, "Remembrance."   

It's surrounded by a map of Nazi death camps. The artwork shows people herded into a crematorium, but a remnant survives, emerging through the smokestack.

That began a prolific career - one with art characterized more by hope and joy than darkness.  

Tibor's creations dance.  They embrace. They kiss. They pray.  They celebrate life.  There are family groups, like one at the Governor's Mansion, in memory of children who died in the Holocaust.

"Second Step," a sculpture of a mother reaching for a daring toddler, graces an Upper Arlington park.

There also are allegorical figures, like the statue of a woman releasing doves, called "Hope,” at the James Cancer Hospital.

"The way that a person might gesture toward the sky and toward the future, those things move me.  You cannot help but be moved by them. They're so intuitive," Santoro-Au said.

The only interruption in Tibor's career came from an event as bizarre as it was startling.

One night, a buck crashed through a window of his home, rampaged around, and pinned Tibor with his antlers.  

The artist who was then in his 80s, but strong from a generation of lifting stone, fought to keep the antlers from skewering his stomach.

His wife ran from the house and flagged down a passing cab driver for help.

That driver, Randall Rader, first thought a burglar had broken in and attacked.  When he rushed to help, he was amazed at the sight.

"I saw the window broke and went inside and there was a deer on top of the guy, had him pinned up against the wall," Rader said.

Tibor was hospitalized, but healed.

Then back to work. One of his most ambitious projects came from Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Bexley.  He was commissioned to do the three-story work after educators heard him speak, and gave him this direction:

"Make a memorial of the 20th century discrimination of people," Tibor recalled.

He began as he always did, not with sketches, but with a tiny model.

He wanted a family emerging from a 27-foot flame.  But that created a new problem, one of engineering.  

How could the flame support a 500-pound family group without moving? He contacted experts, but got nowhere. He shook his head at the memory.  

"Sleepless night, I have to tell you that, months and months."

Then, on a flight to visit his brother in Miami, he found the answer.  

As the flap on the plane's wing lifted, he noticed the interior support system.

"There are little pipes, crosses, building the wing," Tibor explained.

He borrowed that idea, reinforced the interior of his flame, and it worked.  

That artwork brought him his next major commission, “Celebration of Life.”  It shows early settler Sarah Sullivant lifting baby Arthur Boke, the first African-American born in Franklin County.

Boke was left on her doorstep, and she raised him as her own.  

The sculptor survived the Nazis, the Russians, and a 10-point buck.  

Now Alfred Tibor says he'll do no more large sculptures, but plans to work as long as he lives, because he has a message to share.  He said he doesn't do "art for art's sake."  

He works toward a more important goal.  His voice broke with passion as he passed the message along.

"I am telling to the next coming generation. Hatred doesn't work."

Lynette Santoro-Au said that in July, they'll start fundraising to pay for the installation of the sculptures in Tibor Park, and for the bases to put them on.

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